FRANKFORT, Ky. — A bill aimed at allowing trial use of cannabis oil for severe childhood seizures gained momentum Wednesday, clearing a Kentucky Senate committee that heard emotional pleas from parents wanting the treatment for their children.
Rita Wooton held up a photo of her 4-year-old son Eli, who has suffered from uncontrollable seizures since birth. Doctors have prescribed more than a dozen medicines that haven't worked, and a neurologist recently suggested the family try cannabis oil, the eastern Kentucky woman said.
"You don't know what it's like 'till you take my son home with you," Wooton told the lawmakers, her voice shaking with emotion. "I'm not looking for sympathy or even empathy.
"We're looking for help, and that's where we come to you all. It's your ... decision on what my son gets as far as treatment."
The bill was approved by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, and now heads to the full Senate. Senate President Robert Stivers later said the measure seems to have strong support in the chamber, and said it appears cannabis oil has "some therapeutic and medicinal value."
"There doesn't seem to be any downsides to it," said Stivers, R-Manchester.
Gov. Steve Beshear said he hasn't reviewed the measure in detail but said it's his understanding that law enforcement and drug policy officials have worked with the bill's sponsor.
"I think they have worked through all of the issues with that," the governor said. "And if that is the case, then we will not have a problem with it."
Wooton said that without action by Kentucky lawmakers, her family is prepared to leave their home in Hyden for another state that allows use of oil taken from marijuana plants.
"We shouldn't have to leave our homes and our families and our jobs to seek treatment," she said.
Under the bill, patients could be treated with the non-intoxicating oil at the medical research hospitals at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville as part of research.
Republican Sen. Julie Denton of Louisville said she's confident her proposal will garner enough support to pass the GOP-led Senate and Democratic-run House during this session.
She said the medicinal oil can come from hemp, which is starting to make a comeback in Kentucky.
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer recently announced pilot projects for hemp, which has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high. Hemp and marijuana are from the same species.
Hemp production was banned decades ago by the federal government. But the new federal farm bill allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp research projects in states that allow the growing of hemp. Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation last year that allowed hemp to be reintroduced, but only if the federal government allows its production.
Committee action on the cannabis oil bill Wednesday represented a small first step toward legalizing cannabis-based extracts in Kentucky to treat medical conditions.
Much broader bills seeking to allow the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes have not made any headway in the General Assembly, which will be two-thirds finished next week.
Democratic Sen. Perry Clark of Louisville, who is sponsoring such a bill, said Wednesday the marijuana plant is showing "great possibilities in all kinds of forms" to help treat ailments.
Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, said about 20 states have medical marijuana laws. Advocates argue that marijuana effectively mitigates pain, nausea and anxiety for people with cancer and other ailments.
"We in Kentucky always want to make very small steps," Thomas said during the committee hearing.
Denton, who is retiring from the Senate after this year, said she wished her cannabis oil bill was broader, but said she was trying to get something passed to get a foothold on the issue.
Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, agreed that it struck the right balance.
"If we go any further, you don't have anything," he said. "If you go any less, why bother."
The legislation is Senate Bill 124.